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Learning to Learn from Experience- Book Review

1 February 2007

Dr. Moria Levy

Learning from experience poses inherent challenges as it necessitates scrutinizing existing beliefs and values, validating them, and rectifying misconceptions. We must introspect and acknowledge the blind spots where we were previously oblivious. Despite expanding experience through this process, individuals often adapt their experiences to align with pre-existing beliefs, hindering genuine learning. Selective hearing, seeing, and feeling, coupled with a tendency to conform to expectations, often impede the ability to assess the correctness of beliefs based on real-life experiences.


Edward Szell, a philosophy professor at Sangmun University in the United States, authored the book "Learning How to Learn from Experience" in 1984. While primarily focusing on the individual, the book touches on internal and environmental aspects related to learning from experience and enhancing these processes. Despite its focus, the book also delves into the organizational management of learning from experience. This article provides a subjective review of the book, examining it through organizational experience management as part of the broader process of handling organizational insights and knowledge.


Learning from experience, defined as direct contact with the reality being learned, contrasts indirect learning methods like reading, hearing, talking, or writing about the content. Functional learning, which is helpful, contrasts with non-functional learning, which can be worthless or harmful. The accumulation of knowledge, while empowering, can also lead to detrimental effects, fostering defensive or destructive behaviors. The book emphasizes the importance of functional learning, steering clear of non-functional or harmful outcomes.


The article sets the stage for exploring Szell's insights into learning from experience, acknowledging its complexities and the need for a balanced approach to knowledge acquisition.


There are four distinct levels of learning from experience, each shedding light on lesson learning levels, which inherently involve direct contact with experience:

  1. Response Learning: This level involves altering our prepared responses for future scenarios. It includes incorporating new responses into our existing repertoire or replacing current responses with alternatives. For instance, if we habitually eat dessert at the end of a meal, we might change this behavior by standing up and weighing in instead. Reactive learning, observed at this level, is the most common type of lessons learned and insights gained, constituting the fundamental level but not the sole one.

  2. Situation Learning: In this level, we shift our approach to analyzing situations and diagnosing scenarios. This involves recognizing that others' reactions or device responses may not result from our misbehavior in presumed scenarios but rather from diverse interpretations, which are not necessarily accurate. Understanding and reinterpreting situations allows us to respond differently without necessarily formulating entirely new responses. For example, if a child asks his mother for something to eat and she declines, the child may interpret it as a lack of love. As the child grows, a more nuanced understanding emerges, realizing that the mother's objection was rooted in concern for the child's health due to the request for candy. While the facts remain constant, the interpretation of the scenario evolves. It is crucial to emphasize the distinction between reactive learning and scenario learning, with the latter requiring reflective observation, which might deviate from our initial perspective. As defined in the book, freedom entails the power to offer a new interpretation through reflection. Autonomy as human beings lies in directing our lives toward reflective thought processes, fostering scenario learning from experience. Lessons learned processes should encompass significant scenario learning to ensure a comprehensive understanding of situations, preventing premature conclusions and unnecessary assumptions.

  3. Transliteration Learning: This level involves conceptual learning about changing interpretations of scenarios. Both individuals and organizations learn to mirror and explore additional scenarios, an essential aspect of analyzing situations dynamically.

  4. Transcendent Learning: At this higher level, we develop new concepts and tools that facilitate relevant alternatives and responses. Superior learning, which enables the creation of methodologies for concluding, becomes the overarching framework. The previously discussed learning types are products of this superior learning, emphasizing the importance of not settling for a uniform methodology across the entire organization for all cases.


Understanding the various learning levels derived from experience is crucial in refining and enhancing the learning processes. This heightened awareness allows for a detailed examination of the skills necessary for improvement, thereby enhancing learning effectiveness.


In all learning processes stemming from experience, three primary skills prove invaluable:

  1. Generalization: This skill involves extrapolating from individual instances to encompass a broader collection of cases. Given that no two cases are identical, generalization is indispensable for applying the acquired experience to future scenarios. It is fundamental for projecting insights from one case to another.

  2. Choice and Focus: When navigating reality to determine the scenario and the optimal course of action, individuals engage in processes of selection and focus. Reality, being infinite, demands the application of selection and focus to distill an infinite sequence into a finite collection of details. This skill's significance prevents individuals from becoming overwhelmed by the vast array of facts and further information representing reality. Choosing and focusing makes it challenging to identify the scenario, comprehend its meaning, and deduce the necessary response. Despite its apparent simplicity, this skill is often overlooked, leading to failures during debriefing sessions where lengthy and entertaining fact-gathering processes may overshadow essential elements. Similarly, in decision-making processes, incorrect selection and focus favor treatment over core issues, resulting in flawed situation analysis and inappropriate response.

  3. Interpretation: This skill explains reality, precisely the reflection after the selection and focus process. It encompasses organizing and documenting reality as an integral part of our overall experience. When interpreting reality, individuals analyze connections between chosen elements, intertwining them to form a meaningful perception of reality. The final step involves assigning value to these elements, determining their positive or negative nature, and their importance or secondary status in our eyes. This interpretive process is pivotal in shaping our understanding and response to the world around us.


By amalgamating the three skills, we construct a map. This map serves as our perception of reality, encapsulating details as a surrogate for the infinite continuum of reality. It functions as a pragmatic platform for expressing our beliefs and values, guiding decisions such as "In this case, it is worth doing this and not another" or discerning that "This response is inappropriate in that context." Our creation of this map involves recording through language (words) and, concurrently, through sights, sounds, and sensations—the three primary forms through which we experience and assimilate information about the world and ourselves.


Individuals naturally tend to favor one form over the others, and the book's author delves into this as a foundation for interpersonal communication. Such preferences can occasionally lead to brief lapses in communication due to differing perceptions of reality, where the weight assigned to sensations, sights, and auditory inputs varies among individuals. In these instances, individuals may perceive a deficiency on the opposite side, not due to an actual lack but because of expectations regarding the appropriate utilization of different sensations (e.g., "He is not sensitive," "He doesn't pay attention to what I'm saying," etc.).


Language acts as a system that organizes and classifies experience, facilitating the creation of experience maps. The method of constructing these maps follows a three-stage process. Initially, we generate mental images representing what we believe we saw, heard, and felt. In the second stage, we identify a pattern, often based on previous experiences, that corresponds to the image. This pattern recognition stage is sometimes unconscious yet holds significant importance. Without the ability to quickly produce pictures and align them with existing templates without active attention, our daily functioning would be hindered, as illustrated in activities like driving in the city.


The third stage involves validation, often performed subconsciously. We assess whether reality aligns with the recognized pattern and fits into the existing map. If not, we refine the map through reactive learning (adding possible responses) or scenario learning (choosing a more representative map). These actions elucidate the development of insights, emphasizing that employees gain experience and best practices throughout their professional lives alongside intentional lesson-drawing processes. Not every action undergoes rational analysis, and lessons are learned consciously and unconsciously. Learning unfolds through the creation of mental images, pattern recognition, analysis, adaptation to existing maps, and, when necessary, the creation or refinement of new maps—all of which can occur without the individual's awareness of the process or the acquired knowledge etched into behavioral patterns.


Understanding the skills above aids in comprehending why individuals may construct experience maps (or reality maps) that are not necessarily accurate. Errors in each skill—excessive generalization, incorrect selection and focus, and misinterpretation by suggesting connections between the focused elements—can contribute to the formation of a distorted map, resulting in the development of an incorrect, inaccurate, or ineffective experience. How can we enhance this process?

  1. Seeking Feedback and Listening: Requesting feedback and attentively listening to it may seem simple, but they prove highly effective. Honest feedback is a valuable tool for correcting and refining our maps.

  2. Differentiating Between the Map and Reality: It is crucial to recognize the distinction between our mental maps and objective reality. Acknowledging that our perceptions of what we have seen, heard, and felt constitute a map, not reality itself, empowers us to construct new and corrected maps.


Paying heed to the disparity between our maps and reality is the primary tool for mastering scenario-switching and enhancing learning from experience. By consistently reminding ourselves that maps are not exhaustive depictions of the world, we facilitate examining and modifying these mental constructs. This awareness makes us more receptive to the idea that diverse individuals construct varying maps of the same reality. Reassessing reality through alternative maps not only aids in understanding others but also facilitates improved personal conduct and enhances the learning process from experience.


Edward Cell also guides us into the corporate realm. However, he sometimes portrays this world as adversarial—a place where knowledge is concealed from the workers and wielded against them. He envisions a scenario in which employees need experience to safeguard their interests. I am optimistic that such a viewpoint will no longer be predominant in most organizations at the dawn of the 21st century. Ideally, organizations have evolved, recognizing that employees are primarily knowledge workers and that providing them with comprehensive knowledge, even on a personal level, is crucial for fostering trust—a prerequisite for elevating their professionalism.


Cel highlights a tool that enhances learning from experience in organizations: the technique of splitting problems, also known as Divergent Problem Solving. This division is achieved through questioning and challenging the problem's mental maps. The capability to present multiple maps concurrently, each stemming from a different breakdown of the issue, enables the consideration of various alternatives and choices, bringing us closer to the desired solution.


Cel also introduces organizational survival tactics, which he labels essential for comprehending the organizational landscape and minimizing damage when corporate interests clash with personal ones. Three survival tactics related to learning from experience are outlined:

  1. Framing: The speaker establishes fundamental assumptions by posing questions and stating facts. For instance, a question like "Have you decided to give up and not be so negative about the project?" sets a framing that categorizes any response as hostile towards the project. Identifying framing is a crucial skill that empowers the challenge of assumptions through renewed, alternative framing.

  2. Fragmenting: Responding to an entire reality often involves addressing a symptom rather than the actual cause of the problem. Fragmenting simplifies breaking down the image into its components, allowing an examination of which component might be the actual cause of the depicted situation and problem.

  3. Playing it both ways: When faced with the difficulty of selecting a map that accurately represents the real problem, it is recommended that you play it both ways: cover against all possible alternatives simultaneously. Despite its humorous connotation, this technique allows risk management across all alternatives concurrently, irrespective of the correct one.


As mentioned earlier, we had reservations about Edward Szell's application to organizations. However, the skills and techniques he introduces apply to organizational and personal contexts. They extend beyond scenarios involving a conflict of interest between an employee and the organization, proving valuable in various problem-solving situations and navigating conditions of uncertainty.


In the concluding chapters of Szell's book, additional practical tools rooted in the principles discussed earlier are presented for learning from experience. Szell delineates several factors that may create a conflict between mental maps and real-world reality.


Szell emphasizes the first tool: asking the right questions. This tool scrutinizes the existence of conflicts. The act of posing questions not only stimulates thought processes but also fosters critical examination. Questioning the reflected reality map and the underlying beliefs and values becomes a foundational step that instigates learning processes from experience. It ultimately leads to selecting a different map and constructing a new map representing a novel concept.

A second tool highlighted by Szell involves canceling cancellations. Recognizing that maps are products of choice and focus, this tool addresses the need to revisit details previously omitted. This method ensures a more accurate representation of the situation by reintroducing canceled details and reassessing the correct map representing reality. For instance:

  • Before: "Escape doesn't always help."

  • After: "My escape from my home doesn't always help me."


While often motivated by the desire to simplify, summarizing can inadvertently distort our perception of reality. Hence, canceling cancellations becomes crucial in rectifying these distortions.


The third tool introduced by Szell is the complete cleanse. This tool, seemingly contradictory to utilizing experience, actually reinforces it. Szell suggests periodically disregarding previous experiences and treating reality like similar incidents had never occurred. By analyzing it afresh and constructing a new map reflecting appropriate beliefs and values, this disengagement proves instrumental in pinpointing discrepancies between the map and reality.

Edward Szell meticulously summarizes his book, outlining five learning methods from experience and the corresponding skills required for each. The book provides tools for self-assessment, aiding individuals in identifying areas for improvement and focusing on strengthening their ability to learn from experience.


The key features highlighted by Szell include:

  1. Symbolizing: Key skills supporting reading, writing, listening, speaking, visualizing (through graphs and images), processing and expressing through photos, audio, and sensations, empathy, understanding and communicating through body language, judging others' responses, influencing others through communication and behavior.

  2. Thinking: Key skills supporting construction, understanding relationships, comparing, analyzing, and synthesizing (converging, splitting, deductive).

  3. Judging: Key skills supporting appreciation, morality and ethics, aesthetics, interpretation of sensations, and personal knowledge (judging personal strengths and weaknesses).

  4. Remember: Serial memory, physical somatic memory, associative memory, process memory, memory according to concepts, memory around entities, ability to upload information from memory, identification and linking of reserved memory to encountered situations, use of memory and its practical application for existing tasks.

  5. General Learning Skills: Intrinsic personal motivation, extrinsic motivation, encouragement, and support; attention and concentration; ignoring noises; and making effective use of time in study tasks.


While not delving into detailed self-assessment methodologies in this space, interested readers can find comprehensive information in the book. It's intriguing to witness the intricacies of our complex and highly programmed brains, which respond swiftly, providing a fascinating exploration into learning from experience.

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